Adam Smith, S.D. Goitein, and the “Economics” (and “Sexual Ethics”) of Islamic Jihad Slavery

Adam Smith, S.D. Goitein, and the “Economics” (and “Sexual Ethics”) of Islamic Jihad Slavery

Muslim female-slavery-0001Shlomo Dov [S. D.] Goitein (d. 1985) was a historian of Muslim-Jewish relations whose seminal research findings were widely published, most notably in the monumental five-volume work A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza (1967–1993). The Geniza documentary record, an important collection of letters, sacred texts, etc., stored in Cairo, was first brought to scholarly and public attention by Solomon Schechter. These materials provide an especially detailed chronicle of the period from 950–1250 CE.

Goitein was Professor Emeritus of the Hebrew University, and a scholar at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. The New York Times obituary for Professor Goitein (published on February 10, 1985) noted, appositely, that his renowned (and prolific) writings on Islamic culture, and Muslim-Jewish relations, were “standard works for scholars in both fields.”

In a 1962 essay on Muslim slavery (“Slaves and Slavegirls in the Cairo Geniza Records”, Arabica, T. 9, Fasc. 1 (Jan., 1962), pp. 1-20; p.2), Goitein cited Adam Smith’s observation from An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (Chap 8, p. 109, “Wages of Labour”),

It appears … from the experience of all ages and nations … that the work done by free men comes cheaper in the end than that performed by slaves

Goitein is emphatic that Smith’s sweeping historical generalization “certainly does not apply to the period of early Islam”, in particular,

…when an abundant supply of captives was available in the wake of the incessant [jihad] wars of conquest, so that free labor could be replaced by the cheaper work of slaves. As is well known, the ninth century, the third of Islam, witnessed a tremendous revolt of masses of negro slaves in southern Iraq, which shook the very foundations of the caliphate of Bagdad, and, somewhat later, the council of a comparatively small Carmathian community in Eastern Arabia owned a labor force of tens of thousands of negroes doing agricultural work.

The specific subject of Goitein’s analysis was female slavery, and he also noted this stark contrast regarding how Islam, relative to Judaism and Christianity (seen through the prism of the subjected Jewish and Christian minorities in the Middle East during the Middle Ages), viewed sexual relations with enslaved women.

…there was, of course, a deep cleavage between the Christian and Jewish minorities on the one hand and the Muslim majority on the other. While Christianity and Judaism disapproved of any sexual relations outside wedlock, in Islam a female slave was at the disposal of her master, and he could possess as many of them as he liked and his purse allowed.


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